California salmon fishing reopens, but trollers still worry

It’s finally time to fish, and Duncan MacLean is ready.

His deckhand, Paul Pelt, is not. When MacLean arrives at his boat in darkened Pillar Point Harbor at 4:30 in the morning, Pelt is snuggled into a tiny bunk below deck with his girlfriend, Donna.

“Let’s go, get up,” MacLean hollers, and then invites Donna to leave. She rubs her eyes and wanders into the darkness in shorts and a T-shirt.

Like scores of fishermen, MacLean once earned a handsome living trolling for salmon in these waters south of San Francisco. But it’s been a struggle since 2008, when authorities sharply restricted fishing to allow the dwindling salmon population to grow.

This spring, the federal government decreed that the fish were back and approved a five-month season. Now old salts like MacLean are eager to get to sea before officials change their minds.

As dawn breaks on a recent morning, he sits at the helm of his 43-foot wooden boat, the Barbara Faye, guiding it past yachts and pleasure cruisers, two break walls and a beacon. But his enthusiasm to be fishing again is tempered by anxiety over what he will catch.


“I don’t know if there are that many fish in the ocean,” he says, leaning back against the wood paneling of the cabin.

Many fishermen have grown weary of waiting for this moment, and have moved on to grape growing or construction or old age. The California Department of Fish and Game handed out just 706 commercial salmon licenses this year, down by half from 2005. Towns up and down the coast have struggled to fill the gap as gear stores went out of business and sport fishing tourists stayed away.

But MacLean hopes that this will be the year salmon fishing comes back. He dons his shiny orange coveralls and a baseball cap, and steers the Barbara Faye, named after his 23-year-old daughter, over the shiny, pushy ocean.

“There is nothing better than throwing lines out and having fish on every hook,” he says. “People pay good money on weekends to do what we do every day.”


MacLean, 61, looks as if he were born at sea, with the weathered face and hands of a man who has spent his life outside.

It wasn’t the life he expected. He majored in art at Sonoma State University, thinking he might become a sculptor. Then a friend asked him to help on his fishing boat one day.

On his first voyage, MacLean fought seasickness and snared his thumbnail with a hook, splitting it down the middle. But he was hooked and decided to try fishing for a living.

His strategy today is to break away from the dozen or so other boats out of Half Moon Bay and head to a spot 10 miles out, where he caught dozens of fish two days earlier.

“There are few places out here I haven’t been,” he says, chewing on a toothpick.

The 1981 vintage boat’s small cabin has a pantry well-stocked with Tabasco sauce, oatmeal, peanuts and other snacks. A skull-and-crossbones flag reading “fish or cut bait” hangs above a double bed, and there’s a stove in the corner that keeps the cabin warm.

Cozy but on edge, MacLean looks for telltale signs of fish as the boat’s diesel engine hums beneath him. He’s seeking areas where the water might be darker, where plankton float on the surface, where birds hover.

His decision to steer clear of the crowd appears to make sense as the voices of the other fishermen from Half Moon Bay crackle over the radio.

“There’s nothing for us. Nothing at all,” says one.


MacLean’s quarry, chinook salmon, hatch in freshwater tributaries of the Sacramento River, migrate to the Pacific to feed and mature, and return to the rivers to spawn.

In recent years, their decline has been astonishing: just 40,873 chinooks returned to spawn in 2009, down from 396,005 in 2005, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council, composed of scientists, fishermen, tribal leaders and government officials, counts the number of fish that return to the rivers in order to advise the federal government about the duration of the fishing season.

Back in the 1980s, MacLean says, salmon might weigh up to 30 pounds, and a fisherman could catch as many as 250 a day.

MacLean blames the decline on Central Valley farmers, saying they polluted the delta with pesticides and fertilizers, killing the food sources that salmon depend upon.

“We’re sending these fish on a 400-mile journey with nothing to eat, no place to hide, nothing to breathe, and that’s a simple fact,” he said. “They’re not making it to the ocean.”

It’s more complicated than that, according to Peter Moyle, a fisheries expert at UC Davis. Increasing ocean temperatures and changing currents have disrupted the food chain, Moyle says. Today’s salmon are less able to survive these adverse conditions because so many of them are spawned in hatcheries and share similar genetic backgrounds, he adds, leading them to seek out the same areas in the oceans instead of ranging more widely.

An hour out, MacLean reaches his destination. He puts the boat on autopilot and joins Pelt at the stern to put out the fishing lines. There are no nets here; commercial fishermen in California are required to catch fish using lines and barbless hooks, and anything under 27 inches gets tossed back.

At the flip of a switch, a hydraulic device spins out a weighted wire on either side of the boat, with fishing lines attached to each wire. As the boat rolls on the water, the two men attach a hook and a lure to each line and throw it overboard. Once 18 lures have been tossed out on each side, they secure a float to each wire so it trails the boat.

Then it’s time to head back to the cabin and wait.

MacLean munches on peanuts and plays a fishing game on the computer. Pelt works on a crossword puzzle with a red pencil, drinking soda from a can. A dream catcher sways back and forth from the light fixture on the ceiling.

Their silence is punctuated by random banter, from crossword clues to Pelt seeking guidance on his love life, which MacLean seems reluctant to dispense.

Pelt, 41, tall and wiry with a bleached mohawk, came to the trade relatively recently, after construction work dried up back in Colorado a few years ago.

He gets paid on commission, which means he earns a living only when the boat has a good day. But it’s better than the Army, he said, which he left 15 years ago after patrolling the streets of L.A. during the 1992 riots.

“I work 24/7 for nothing, unless we catch fish,” he says.

Suddenly there’s a tug on the fishing lines, and MacLean and Pelt scramble to the stern to reel in the wire. But it’s only pesky jellyfish. The rainbow arcs of the fathom indicator show ghostlike blips of jellyfish hovering below the surface. Pelt is dispatched to peel them off the lines, with gloves and a careful grip; last week, one ended up on his face.


More waiting. It could be an hour later, or maybe four, when there’s a hard, promising pull on the fishing lines.

MacLean jumps up and hurries aft. The boat is rolling from side to side in a motion that might make even Poseidon sick, but MacLean is steady as a tank as he flips a switch and the lines begin to reel in. A salmon flails at the end of one.

When the line is about 20 feet from the vessel, MacLean hauls it in, one hand over another, steady, confident, as the salmon fights back. Then he leans over with a homemade wood-rimmed fishing net and snags the fish, dumping it on a cutting table in the back of the boat.

“Yah huh!” Pelt grunts, as the 18-pound fish thrashes in protest. “Is it a keeper?”

MacLean can tell by eyeballing the fish that it is, but he doesn’t speak. He cuts the hook out of the salmon as it flops on the table, angry, blood leaking from its head, and turns his back to send the line back into the water. When he again faces the fish, he wears a triumphant grin.

It’s just after noon, and MacLean seems suddenly optimistic that this slow day could turn around.

But the waiting drags on, and by 2 p.m., the Barbara Faye has caught just one fish and a whole lot of jellyfish, even though MacLean has put out his lucky lure, a dark green piece of metal shaped like a dog tag that the fish seem to like.

The boat floats on the water alone, nine miles out to sea, surrounded by the pitching horizon, punctuated only by an occasional research ship or charter boat.

“Mosquitoes,” MacLean grunts, about a charter boat that starts to fish nearby.

Over the radio, a sister vessel from the Half Moon Bay fleet reports catching seven chinooks, so the Barbara Faye heads “downhill,” or south, with MacLean’s tail between his legs.

“When you’re right, you’re right. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” he says, as Pelt warms up a frozen ham snack in the microwave.

Days like this make MacLean worry that the fish are dying off, and that leads him to worry for the next generation. In addition to Barbara Faye, he has a 21-year-old son, Wesley, and a 4-year-old granddaughter, Hailee. Another son, Kenneth, had cerebral palsy and died a few years back.

“It scares me for the sake of my granddaughter, and it scares me for the sake of this planet we exist on,” he said. “We’re not very far from destroying it all.”


A light rain begins to fall as MacLean gives up for the day at 7 p.m., with just one fish in the freezer, and turns the boat back toward shore. He does the math: 35 gallons of gas at about $4.50 a gallon and a hundred or so dollars on gear, food and engine oil, in exchange for a fish he’ll be able to sell for $126. He’s lost about $130 today.

Pelt didn’t fare much better. His 15% commission on the fish should bring him about $18.90 for a 17-hour day.

“We did some fishing, but we didn’t do much catching,” MacLean says as the lights of Half Moon Bay come into view. His smile is forced.

There were years when he could earn $120,000 over the course of a summer. In 2007, the year before authorities closed the season, MacLean made just $13,000.

“Sometimes it’s feast or famine,” he says. He’s added crab and black cod fishing to his repertoire to bring in additional money.

Salmon fishermen received disaster relief funds from the government the years the season was closed, but now they’re back on their own.

Whether they’ll be able to continue to fish depends on the waters and on a straightforward equation, MacLean says.

“Fishing is very simply driven by economics,” he says, as he pulls into the harbor and Pelt jumps off to tie up the boat. “If you can’t afford to go fishing, if you can’t make enough money doing it, you won’t.”